Infectious, elegant and maybe wrong: sketch for an explanation of the Long Divergence

Ulysse Colonna
Apr 18, 2018 · 7 min read
(stolen from the Ottoman History Podcast, sorry, thanks and sorry again)

1. A low-hanging pomegranate

Over the past, let’s say, twenty years, three different but closely linked literatures have flowered but, as far as I can tell, blissfully ignoring each other. Namely :

  • The Long Divergence literature dedicated to the vexing question of why did the Ottoman Empire not develop at the same pace as Western Europe after the year 1500. Despite close proximity and sustained relationship with fast-growing Europe, the Empire did not match the growth of West and became part of the so-called Rest. This literature is heavily influenced by institutionalist economics. That is the thesis arguing that the rules set up by the state or society determine the economic performance of a country. Good rules make for strong growth, bad rules make for a poor showing. And according to institutionalists, the Ottoman Empire had a dismal set of rules which explain its growing retardation relative to Europe (see in particular @timurkuran, @jaredcrubin, but also @nfergus).

(full disclosure: I’m just an amateur toying with the subject, I’m nothing close to a specialist and my knowledge is far from up to speed with the state-of-the-art literature, so there is a non-trivial probability for everything I’ve said so far and for everything that will follow to be complete and utter saçmalık)

As far as I can tell, these three strands of literatures have not directly addressed each other . The scholars working on the Long Divergence have not looked seriously at the plague. The Empire-of-Plague research has not explored the structural consequences of the disease. And, finally, the health-and-development literature has completely ignored the Ottoman case.

2.”Si ce n’est toi…”

This rapid overview of the three literatures shows that confronting them could prove to be a fruitful exercise.

To put it clearly, I believe that the basic hypothesis that the poor Ottoman economic performance after 1650 may have been in part driven by the epidemiological context should be considered. I’m only going to do a quick-and-dirty overview of the matter here but I hope it may be sufficient to consider it as a question worth exploring further.

When reading about the Ottoman economy, one cannot help but noticing that some of its main characteristics are exactly in line with what one would expect from a system repeatedly shocked by deadly diseases. In particular, several features of the Ottoman economy identified by economic historians as proximate explanations for its underdevelopment relative to Europe after 1600 could have emerged as a consequence of the prevalence of the plague. In particular:

  • Exploitative institutions. Corruption was widespread and institutionalized in Europe at the time. But, in the Middle East it is often presented as particularly insupportable and damaging both by locals and foreigners (avanias). This is in line with a region where the very survival of the administrators is rather uncertain (several sultans and princes died of the disease and entire regional administrations could be wiped out in a matter of weeks). Those in charge need to extract a.s.a.p. as much as possible from the taxpayers before either their tax base is wiped out by disease or they themselves suffer from it. In essence, this is the Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson argument applied to a non-colonial (or a not-completely colonial) context.

Other aspects can be put forth, but I believe the point is already sufficiently laboured for now.

3. Trouble shooting: endogeneity

One important counter can be offered to my the-plague-caused-the-Long-Divergence argument. Namely that the prevalence of the disease in the early modern Ottoman Empire is not exogenous. It can be reasonably argued that it was a consequence of the Empire’s policies, in particular, the lack of quarantines. From the 14th century onward, Christian European had put a lot of measures in place destined to limit or prevent the spread of the disease. The Ottoman rarely did so.

This non-response of the Ottoman state to the challenge of the plague, it has been argued, could be caused by endogenous factors: refusal to adopt European fashions, influence of religious fatalism or, simply, lack of funds and of the necessary authority to implement them. If such was the case then the prevalence of the plague in Ottoman lands would only be yet another manifestation of the numerous institutional problems of the Empire, as described by the Long Divergence literature, and it could not be causal.

I don’t pretend that I have a reply to this. At most, I can point to two important conditions that need to be respected for endogeneity to arise. The counter-argument supposes that 1) European policies did indeed have an effect on the geographical spread of the bacillus in Europe and 2) that the Ottoman case was close enough to the European model so that efficient anti-epidemics measures could have been applied efficiently by the sultans.

To this day, the causes explaining the particular prevalence of the plague in Ottoman lands remains an unsolved question. At most, I can point out that both Daniel Panzac and Nükhet Varlik hinted in their work that there may have been plague reservoirs in or around the Ottoman Empire that might have been at the source of the recurring infections. Panzac actually went as far as to share his intuition that the disappearance of the plague in the Middle East was entirely due to natural causes and was not related to the implementation of health measures on the European model by the Ottoman Empire.

Anyway, I like this embryo of an hypothesis as it remains fairly parsimonious and, above all, because it takes us as far away as possible from the culturalist approach which, to me, seems always too close to the Clash-of-Civilizations type of reasoning for comfort. But, as I pointed out, I am no specialist and if someone knows of a paper/book that deals with this or if someone finds a flaw in the reasoning or in the facts please let me know, I’d love to put this train of thought to rest.

Thanks for your attention and take care, don’t you get bitten by them fleas.

[Edit: one important paper came to my attention after writing this, Guido Alfani’s “Plague in Seventeenth-Century Europe and the Decline of Italy”. In it, he rather convincingly argues that the greater prevalence of the disease in Italy may have had a major and long-term economic impact for the peninsula. This is in line with my own intuition, albeit for another place.]

Ulysse Colonna

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creative spelling, economic history, ''de mauvaise foi et un peu con''